Actor, theatre and film director and a teacher. One of the most popular and most versatile Polish actors. Born on 18 April 1947 in Kraków.
Table of contents: Early Career | Collaboration with Falk, Kieślowski, Wajda and Holland | Cinema of Moral Anxiety | Big Roles | Supporting Roles | Theatre Directing | Stuhr as a Film Director | Latest Films | Filmography
Usually, you tell jokes about him or anecdotes he features in, but it's worth saying a few serious words about him. To me he seems a rather unique case of an actor in Poland who performs well in all the fields of art he tries; I mean, Stuhr is good in films, and on television, and in theatre. Why is this? I think two elements are decisive that are worth mentioning. The first is technique, excellent technique, mastered to perfection in practically every detail. The other thing, no less important and useful especially in cinema, is his knowledge of reality. Above these two skills, there is his intelligence... Simply put, he understands a great deal of what is happening around him (Quoted from: Krzysztof Miklaszewski, Twarze teatru. Jerzy Stuhr, KAW 1981).
In Dziady Stuhr played the part of Beelzebub - a perfect counterbalance for the character of Konrad. "Belzebub is a mark of the presence of metaphysical drama in the historical drama", wrote Joanna Walaszek. "Beelzebub enters the historical drama not to delineate the spheres of good and evil, but to instigate, provoke, to show despair" (Walaszek, Konrad Swinarski i jego krakowskie inscenizacje, Warsaw 1991). And it was an extremely corporal way in which Stuhr-Beelzebub united with Konrad-Trela when, in the scene before the exorcisms, he threw himself at Konrad, entwining and seeming to suck in his body.
In the 1970's Stuhr created some excellent interpretations in Polish cinema. He played Lutek Danielak in Feliks Falk's Wodzirej (Top Dog, 1977) - an upstart and go-getting parvenu who strives for success ruthlessly though with a certain charm, who is prepared to sacrifice anything for his career.Ryszard Koniczek wrote
Danielak is everything - a lion and a wolf, a coward and an attacker. Each new situation automatically gets a reaction from him that is effective. Does social imagination not admire this kind of disposition, calling it 'drive'? The frankness and authenticity of all the hero's reactions is an additional form of camouflage, neither calculated nor invented. Drive is a technical, or social engineering term. With his film, Falk gives it a moral as well as a social dimension (Kino 1978, No. 7).
Stuhr began collaborating with Krzysztof Kieślowski quite early on. He appeared in Blizna / The Scar and Spokój / The Calm - a film made in 1976 and banned by the censors for four years. He played the part of worker Antoni Gralak, who tries to get his life back on track after leaving prison, and looks for his "little happiness". In Camera Buff in 1979, Stuhr gave a brilliant performance as supplies officer Filip Mosz - a man with an emerging and maturing need for art. Mosz, an employee of a factory in a town near Krakow, buys a film camera. He captures the life of his family, and later the factory, on film. He is successful, also at the cost of submissiveness and compromise - he submits to the director when he asks him to cut some of the scenes. Stuhr showed the metamorphosis of his character very genuinely, his change from a cowed employee into a self-aware artist, a man able to defend his creative freedom, but at the same time, in the name of responsibility for other people, able to give up his own aspirations.
Another interesting role of Stuhr's in the same period was Ejmont - the history teacher at a small-town secondary school in Feliks Falk's Szansa / Chance (1979). After morally ambiguous characters - the assistant of director Bednarz in The Scar, reviewer Głosowicz in Agnieszka Holland's Aktorzy prowincjonalni / Provincial Actors (1978), and lawyer Porębowicz in Andrzej Wajda's Bez znieczulenia / Rough Treatment (1978), in Falk's film Stuhr plays a good man, a humanist - a tenacious man capable of fighting a lonely battle for his ideals.
In the 1970's Stuhr became an actor of the "cinema of moral anxiety" in which the generation of the time found a portrait of themselves. In 1980 Wiktor Woroszylski wrote that there was:
(...) a playing of roles and incarnations linked to one another, overlapping one another and creating not just a biography of the artist but a sign, a picture of something beyond him, of some kind of fate, some kind of situation contemporary with the actor" (Więź 1980, No. 1).
This was the trend in which he also placed Stuhr, while the actor himself admitted: "(...) just three, four years ago I was working quietly in theatre, walking these streets and climbing up all those little [career] rungs. Suddenly, film came along. Overnight, exponentially, the world changed around me. I heard it said that I represented a generation, I noticed myself" (Kino 1980, No. 2).
Stuhr faced a very tough task at the start of his acting career. Two directors with whom he would later work many times, Andrzej Wajda and Jerzy Jarocki, cast him as a replacement in the main parts in their major productions. With Wajda, Stuhr replaced Wojciech Pszoniak in the part of Pyotr Verkhovensky in an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Devils (1971). In Witkacy's The Mother directed by Jarocki (1972) he was Leon, a part previously played by Marek Walczewski. Both parts played by his predecessors had been hailed as great interpretations, and though many said Stuhr only imitated them, he did present his own interpretation of the character, especially in the part of Verkhovensky.
"Stuhr goes through a whole palette of moods", wrote Krzysztof Miklaszewski, "from a slyly pretended shyness to an explosion that releases an eruption of visions." (Twarze teatru. Jerzy Stuhr, KAW 1981). Actually, years later Stuhr had to deal with Dostoyevsky's prose transferred to the stage once more, when he played Porfiry Petrovich in Andrzej Wajda's production of Crime and Punishment (1984). He and Jerzy Radziwilowicz as Raskolnikov formed a magnificent acting duo.
Janusz Majcherek described Stuhr's Porfiry in the Teatr periodical:
Wajda has two monsters on stage, both different and both equally repulsive. Jerzy Stuhr's Porfiry is an artist of his trade. He is acting, that's certain. Stuhr plays that he is acting, he knows everything from the start, he is fascinated with the game... Stuhr's part is exaggerated at times, but never approaches caricature. That would be too easy. If Porfiry is a clown sometimes, it is coldly calculated. On one level he is acting, on another he is observing himself. The monstrosity is that he does all this for the sheer love of it, he loves his victim with a torturer's love, and his conduct follows the rule "more enjoyable is the road I travel than my arrival" (Teatr 1985, No. 1).
The part of Porfiry was preceded by other parts in plays directed by Wajda and Jarocki. Stuhr played Wysocki in Stanisław Wyspiański's Noc listopadowa / November Night (1974) and an AA in Sławomir Mrożek's Emigranci / The Emigrants, (1976) - both directed by Wajda.
Bronisław Mamon wrote about The Emigrants:
The Emigrants is a play of two roles. Wajda has cast two actors of contrasting looks in them. Jerzy Stuhr (AA) is slight, slim, nervous. Jerzy Binczycki (XX) - tall, broad-shouldered, a bit on the heavy side. AA looks like a typical intellectual with all his faults - physical infirmity and an internal over-sensitivity. XX - pure power, the elements, wild nature... This acting concert for two people but one instrument features fragments played forte and piano, vivace and moderato, mostly in a sad key. The two actors are great whenever they charge at each other, and fight with word and axe. AA - hysterical and ironic through an excess of awareness, XX - dangerous in his primeval strength that destroys everything when it explodes (Tygodnik Powszechny, 30 May 1976).
Stuhr was also among the cast of a production that was never performed due to the death of its director; this was Hamlet directed by Swinarski. Stuhr was cast as Horatio. In 1981 at the Stary Teatr, Wajda decided to stage the work of the famous Stratfordian, casting Stuhr in the title role first in Hamlet / Scenes and Monologues, and later in the play's complete stage version Tragiczna historia Hamleta / The Tragedy of Hamlet (1981). Playing Hamlet, Stuhr extracted all the wit and irony of his character, still he was also able to highlight his flair for acting and stage directing.
The way Stuhr plays it, simulating madness..., noted Krzysztof Miklaszewski, "becomes a perverse and cruel game; perverse towards himself, cruel towards those around him (Twarze teatru. Jerzy Stuhr, KAW 1981).
In 1977 Stuhr met with Krzysztof Kieślowski again, this time at the Stary Teatr where Kieślowski was staging Życiorys / Curriculum Vitae, a play based on his own script. This was the director's take on Poland's post-war history shown through the life of the protagonist, a man called Gralak, presenting his life story before a Party Control Commission. Stuhr's role, opposite Jerzy Trela (Gralak), was that of the new secretary of the works party committee.
"The value of the acting in this modest production", wrote Elżbieta Morawiec, "is not in any great syntheses, but in the psychological analysis of the characters" (Życie Literackie, 8 January 1978).
Stuhr was also excellent in supporting roles and bit parts - as Yasha in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard directed by Jarocki (1975), and Fikalski in Z biegiem lat, z biegiem dni / As Years Go By, As Days Go By according to a script by Joanna Olczak-Ronikier, directed by Wajda and Anna Polony (1978).
Apart from Yasha in The Cherry Orchard Stuhr has other Chekhov parts to his credit - Nikolai in Platonov directed by Bogdan Hussakowski (Television Theatre, 1976), and Trigorin in 10 Portretów z czajką w tle / 10 Portraits with a Seagull in the Background based on The Seagull, directed by Jerzy Grzegorzewski (1979).
Stuhr gave each of these characters, but especially Trigorin, the awareness of not having completely fulfilled their life's ideal", wrote Krzysztof Miklaszewski. "And it seemed all they had to do was reach out and things would change. But then it turned out none of them lived in a vacuum, they were entangled in other people's lives which they either failed to fully understand or simply did not accept (Twarze teatru. Jerzy Stuhr, KAW 1981).
The actor also did well in the part of the mayor in the controversial production of Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector-General directed by Jerzy Jarocki (1980).
Stuhr's part is fascinating, because the actor was able to construct the role using both the world of small everyday mean tricks with which he eliminated his opponents as Danielak in 'Top Dog', and the dialectics of accepting the metaphysics of evil as the driving force for his conduct in the part of Pyotr Verkhovensky from The Devils, wrote Miklaszewski (Teatr 1981, No. 5).
Stuhr's acting, fully revealed in roles such as Porfiry, combines excellent technique and a stage awareness on the one hand, and a psychological "figuring out" of a character and logical role building on the other. The actor also has excellent powers of observation, he often plays with ironic implied meaning, emotionally and "rationally" at the same time. Stuhr has said,
I don't want to and cannot lose touch with reality. I only use what I can logically justify. I'm interested in the psychology. And if this sometimes creates some kind of generalization, it's only because I try to gather so many of the minor facts that surround me and put them in my role that suddenly it becomes the symbol of some issue (Twarze teatru. Jerzy Stuhr, KAW 1981).
In film in the 1980's, Stuhr played Maks in Juliusz Machulski's excellent comedy Seksmisja / Sexmission (1983), and later appeared in King Size (1987) and Deja Vu (1989) by the same director. Sexmission is set in a future where women rule the world after deeming men expandable or 1987's King Size, a story of a dwarf scientist's adventures in the world of "normal people".
In theatre on the other hand, Stuhr worked with Italian theatres from the early 1980's. He received the Italian Critics' Award in 1982, and Nastro d'Argento - the prestigious award of the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists - for best European artist in 1998.
Stuhr had his directing debut in 1985 with Patrick Süskind's Kontrabasista / The Double Bass, also playing the lead role. The production was a theatrical hit, though many said Stuhr overused his comic temperament and laid on the cheap gags too thick. However, as Andrzej Wanat wrote:
Playing the double bass, Stuhr gives a great performance as the bassist: showing care, physical effort, reluctance, a weariness that is caused by the crudeness of the double-bass accompaniment, and then - when he's playing the solo part - dedication and pride. And that's marvellous. Before saying a single word, Jerzy Stuhr had said everything about his bassist. After that the performance could be no more than correct (Teatr 1986, No. 1).
Stuhr stopped his regular collaboration with the Stary Teatr in Kraków in 1991. Before he left, he directed Janusz Glowacki's play Fortynbras sie upil / Fortinbras is Drunk there. In 2001 he staged Sławomir Mrożek's Wielebni / The Reverends at this theatre. He did a lot of stage directing from the 1990's, mainly at the Teatr Ludowy in Nowa Huta. His projects there included Witold Gombrowicz's Iwona, ksiezniczka Burgunda / Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy (1990) and Moliere's The Bourgeois Gentleman (1993) - a production in which the director focused on skilfully leading the actors, as well as Shakespeare's plays - The Taming of the Shrew (1991), Macbeth (1995), The Merry Wives of Windsor (1998).
This is what Lukasz Drewniak wrote about Stuhr's ideas for interpreting Shakespeare:
His way of reading the play as a director could be called 'naive', as it consists in refusing to force any a priori philosophical or aesthetic generalizations on the performance. He doesn't use Shakespeare to reflect on the world, neither does the director ask what theatre is with his help. He is more interested in preserving the style, in theatrical pragmatism. He avoids metaphors, theses and digressions not related to achieving theatrical effect and not subordinated to the performer's freedom.
Analysing The Merry Wives of Windsor, this writer also noted that Stuhr:
...is trying to find a trace of traditional staging of Shakespeare, something that gets lost in modern experiments. He doesn't judge whether the tradition was good or bad, he simply tests its viability. As a result, he has produced a performance whose intentional anachronism becomes an unquestionable asset (Tygodnik Powszechny 1998, No. 44).
In the 1990's Stuhr was also strongly involved in teaching. In 1990-1996 he was president of the Kraków Drama School, and was appointed to the same office again in 2002. He was a member of the council for culture affiliated to the Polish president in 1991-1993. His autobiographical book Sercowa choroba / Disease of the Heart was published in 1992. He was granted the title of professor of dramatic arts in 1994.
The last decade was mostly a time of film directing projects for Jerzy Stuhr. His cinematic debut Spis cudzołożnic / List of Lovers (1994) was based on the novel by Jerzy Pilch. The film tries to diagnose the present-day awareness of educated Poles in confrontation with the perception of an outsider. The main character, played by Stuhr, is a Jagiellonian University lecturer who plays host to a Swedish guest and shows him around Kraków. Communication between them fails completely. It turns out to be impossible to translate the Polish national experience into language comprehensible to a Swede originating from and brought up in a different faith and culture. Janusz Wroblewski wrote about the film:
We can find in it all the elements that testify to a fresh perception and courage to say serious things (which are, admittedly, often also banal). On the other hand, this is done without pathos, with some detachment (Życie Warszawy 1995, No. 4).
Stuhr, who had earlier worked with Krzysztof Kieślowski as an actor in his films and as co-writer of the dialogues for Spokój / The Calm and Camera Buff (Stuhr also wrote dialogues for films such as Feliks Falk's Top Dog and Chance, and he was the author of the script and dialogues for Slawomir Idziak's Seans / The Session, said about his own first film:
I had never been given the chance to play a member of the intelligentsia, and I felt one. I wanted to tell the story, perhaps for the last time in my film life, of a hero of my generation, to pass on all the things I had picked up in Kieslowski's films in the 1970's, and which I had subsequently tried to present in tones ranging from sharply comic to dramatic (Zycie Warszawy 1995, No. 4).
Stuhr's next film, Historie miłosne / Love Stories (1997), was dedicated to Kieślowski. The story is presented in the framework of a modern morality play. Stuhr plays a succession of four versions of the emotional life of a man in the prime of life who stands in an empty Kafkaesque room in front of the anonymous Accountant and reports on his ability to display feelings, his ability to love. Zdzislaw Pietrasik noted that
Each of the four characters experiences his own emotional situations, but these are not four films in one. The story lines are parallel, as if they were different variations of the same life. This risky approach is successful thanks to the clockwork precision of the editing. The acting is another asset of the film... (Polityka 1997, No. 36).
Stuhr made a much stronger attack on a member of the intelligentsia, a man of success this time, in his next film, Tydzień z życia mężczyzny / A Week in the Life of a Man (1999). This was
(...) a testimony to the changing mentality of the Polish elite", wrote Janusz Wróblewski. - "Just as Lutek Danielak, the Top Dog from Feliks Falk's film, became a symbol of the moral decay of the era of 'the little stabilization and little consumerism', Adam Borowski who is the hero in A Week in the Life of a Man is meant to be a mirror reflecting the dark side of the souls of prominent people from the front pages (Polityka 1999, No. 37).
Korowód, from 2007, is a story composed of the lives of a few ordinary people: a clever student, his girlfriend and an ex-snitch of the political police:
Jerzy Stuhr, who was never afraid of taking on the subject of morality, dealt with it swiftly in this part of Korowód – wrote Anita Piotrkowska – The escape from a life of an ex-snitch of the political police is triggered by his pangs of conscience, as well as his own fear. The character seems to be hunted down by his consciousness which becomes the most severe tribunal for him. Korowód is the first feature film which refers directly to the problem of vetting, and does it very reasonably. It states that there is no place in public life for people who chose to cooperate with the political police for their own profits but others, instead of blaming others, should instead try to investigate into their situation. Maybe the biggest punishment for them is just to stand in front of the mirror every morning? – Tygodnik Powszechny weekly.
In 2007, during the Gdynia Film Festival, Jerzy Stuhr received a Golden Lion Award for the Korowód script. Yet critics have accused him of moralizing too much and idealizing the past, which seems for that reason, and against the background of today's demoralized society, to be a paradise lost.
After his work on Korowód was over, Stuhr was forced to take a break from directing due to illness. He directed however one episode of the co-directed film Mundo Invisivel, joining the famous Theodoros Angelopoulos, Manoel de Oliveira, Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin and Wim Wenders.
Stuhr is very consistent in the way he creates his films, which are cohesive in terms of style and rebellious in their own way, because they pay no attention to modern trends. This is the case with Duże Zwierze / The Big Animal (2000). The script was based on a short story by Kazimierz Orłoś that Krzysztof Kieślowski had turned into a script even before his cinema debut. In The Big Animal, at an unhurried pace and in black and white, Stuhr speaks warmly of tolerance, sacrifice and "small" heroism.
What we see is the story of a modest bank clerk who makes friends with a camel that wandered into his garden from a travelling circus. It turns out, though, that meeting the demands of this friendship requires him to be stubborn and consistent: you not only have to take the camel for walks... you also have to hang on - for instance, to accept that everyone else will turn away from you", wrote Tadeusz Lubelski, and added: "...during the screening, Stuhr the actor forced a really strange emotion upon me: for an hour or so, I wanted to have a camel (Kino 2000, No. 7/8).
The next film directed by Jerzy Stuhr is Pogoda na jutro / Tomorrow's Weather (2003) based on the script by Stuhr and Mieczyslaw Herba. This is a political satire, the first film of its kind for Stuhr. As was the case with his other films, he plays the main part himself, and his son, actor Maciej Stuhr, is his screen partner. They have worked together also in Obywatel / Citizen (2014), where Maciej plays the title character when he's young, and Jerzy - when he grows older.
Stuhr performed a triple role of director, script-writer and main character. He admitted that his own life experiences inspired him to write the script. The main character - Jan Bratek - is Jerzy Stuhr’s age. His life will be presented to a viewer in the reverse order – from adulthood to early childhood and it will serve as a canvas for presenting the last 60 years of the history of Poland.
There are not many people in Europe who had a life comparably interesting to ours. We started under the portrait of Stalin in the middle of a regime to end up as a free nation going through the times of Solidarność, martial law, the selection of John Paul II, emancipation. It was an extraordinary experience – wrote Stuhr of the biography of Poles born after II World War.
Jerzy Stuhr has been a member of the European Film Academy since 1998. His recent film roles include a starring role in Mistyfikacja, directed by Jacek Koprowicz, 2010 and Habemus Papam, a 2011 Italian production directed by Nanni Moretti.
Author: Michał Bujanowicz, June 2004, updated: February 2014, update: NMR, May 2016.
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